In June, Pope Francis released the first papal encyclical — a major kind of teaching — focused on the environment, purposely dropping the bombshell document a few months ahead of a key global climate change meeting in November. Francis, his advisers said, wanted to use his popularity and authority to firmly frame climate change as a symptom of a planet whose ethics have gone haywire. Of a human race that has lost perspective in its treatment of the poor and the environment, and in its greed and wastefulness run amok, they said.
The United Nations climate change conference will begin Nov. 30. On Monday, cardinals and bishops will make a formal appeal at the Vatican to participants of the conference. The most prominent of Francis’s advisers on climate issues is Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, who leads the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. Here Turkson describes the pope’s call for change:
Today cardinals, patriarchs and bishops at the Vatican are making an appeal to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. This is an issue that concerns everyone, for what is at stake is justice between people and generations, the dignity of those who inhabit the planet now, and those who will inhabit it in the future. At stake is the very possibility of human life on Earth.
Since it was published in June, Pope Francis’s teaching document addressing climate change has charted the road to the Paris summit.
Laudato Si’ (Praised Be You) has spotlighted the gravity of the situation facing humanity, and the urgent need to find ways to escape what he calls “the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us.” Francis has given voice to those who are crying out — the Earth, which is our mother and sister, and the millions of poor people who live on Earth — but who struggle to be heard. On their behalf, the encyclical several times addresses world leaders, urging them to take responsibility for the common good, even if they have to go against “the mindset of short-term gain which dominates present-day economics and politics.”
Pope Francis is adamant that dialogue is the only way to seek solutions that are truly effective. Negotiation does not always involve dialogue. If the Paris summit lacks dialogue, its outcome will easily resemble previous global summits on the environment, which, he says in Laudato Si’, “have not lived up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were not able to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment.”
What the pope proposes is authentic dialogue: honesty and transparency. This means not allowing the particular interests of individual countries or specific groups to lead the negotiations. It means rather to negotiate based on the principles which the social teaching of the church promotes: solidarity, subsidiarity, working for the common good, universal destination of goods, and a preferential option for the poor and for the Earth.
Pope Francis proposes a new mindset, one based on the concept of “integral ecology.” It is an expression that captures an ancient awareness that all living beings, human groups and systems as well as non-human ones — that is, all of creation — are fundamentally interconnected. Only with attentive care for these bonds, says Pope Francis, will we come “to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world, particularly those regarding the environment and the poor; these problems cannot be dealt with from a single perspective or from a single set of interests.”
As important as they may be, Pope Francis and his Laudato Si’ will not guarantee that [the Paris climate change meeting] produces an equitable climate agreement, one that is legally binding and generates real change. It needs action, and organization from below; it needs mobilization. As Pope Francis himself said at a meeting of landless farmers and unionized workers in Bolivia in July, “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”
The message of Laudato Si’ needs to be integrated into the active commitment of citizens who organize to make the pope’s message resonate in the halls of power and who demand courageous action on the part of leaders and negotiators in favor of the poor and of the planet. On Nov. 29, this is what hundreds of thousands of men, women and children will do in the Global Climate March on the streets of Paris. They will gather not just in Paris, but in London, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, Bogotá, Johannesburg, Dhaka, Kampala, Omaha, Rome, São Paulo, Sydney, Seoul, Ottawa, Tokyo and some 3,000 other cities. In gathering, and calling for action, they will exercise what Pope Francis calls “ ‘ecological citizenship’ — with a sense of solidarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us.”